As recently as 2016, Derek Hill ranked among the top three prospects in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system according to multiple outlets. By the beginning of 2017, he had slipped to No. 11 on our list, then one more spot down at No. 12 in the middle of 2018. Perhaps we have been holding onto strands of rope that continue to shred as we plummet to the prospect basement, where piles of once-glimmering signs of hope are extinguished into a pile of ash.
We weren’t the only ones, though. Even Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs had Hill on a short list of players who had a chance to launch themselves into their Top 100 with during the 2018 season.
While our confidence in Hill is wavering like everyone else’s, there is still a faint flame burning that could ignite if it just catches a spark at the right time. With that, Hill checks in at No. 24 in our pre-season rankings.
Hill joined the Tigers in (gulp) 2014, when he was the 23rd overall pick in the MLB draft out of Elk Grove (Ca.) High School. Committed to Oregon, Hill bypassed college and signed a deal with the Tigers that included a (double-gulp) $2 million signing bonus. At the time, he was the first outfielder the Tigers had selected in the first round since Cameron Maybin went 10th overall back in 2005 (the Tigers have since added Christin Stewart at No. 34 overall in 2015).
In addition to his prolific prep school career, Derek came to the pro ranks with some pedigree. He is a cousin of longtime major league slugger Darryl Strawberry, and the son of Los Angeles Dodgers scout Orsino Hill, who had over 1,000 minor league hits himself over 12 seasons in the 1980s and early ‘90s.
There isn’t a lot we can say about Hill that hasn’t already been said. He is fast — very, very fast. When he gets on base, which he has done at a paltry .314 clip as a pro, he’s a dynamic base stealer. He has an 80.8 percent success rate in 167 attempts, a rate that puts him in Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson territory, albeit in the lower levels of the minors.
If anything is going to carry to Hill to the majors, it’s his video game-level command of center field. He isn’t just fast, he knows how to play the position at a Gold Glove caliber level. Watch this, and then watch it again.
Hill’s biggest weakness has been his durability. Yeah, shocker, I know. Hill has already endured seven different trips to the disabled list in his young career. There was the quad, and then the elbow (which ultimately required Tommy John surgery), and then the groin. After five seasons since draft day, Derek has managed to appear in just 357 games as a professional. As a result, he just hasn’t been able to string together long enough stretches of steady playing time for his hit tool to progress.
This past season, tendinitis in his left knee was the culprit that landed Hill on the disabled list for nearly three weeks in May. He wasn’t exactly tearing it up at the plate at the time of his injury. When he went down on May 4, Hill was hitting for just a .170 batting average and slugging at a dismal .239 clip. Upon his return from the DL on May 23, Derek went on a little mini-tear. He hit safely in 13 out of 14 games, and went 16-for-37 (.432) over that span. He raised his average to a season-high .248 with a .347 on-base percentage.
Hill does exhibit adequate bat speed, although the swing profile doesn’t figure to generate much power, even from a gap-to-gap perspective.
After that stretch, however, the wheels began to come off for Hill. The strikeouts began to pile up throughout the latter half of June and all of July. He finished the season with a strikeout rate up around 29 percent, above his 25 percent career rate. Perhaps more concerning is the lack of any extra base power whatsoever. Hill finished 2018 with just 16 extra-base hits in 106 games played. Couple that with his very light .307 on-base percentage for the year, and Hill posted a measly .625 OPS.
Projected Team: Erie SeaWolves
There is a particularly interesting quote in John Feinstein’s book Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball. It comes from former first overall pick and ex-Toledo Mud Hens skipper, Phil Nevin, and I think it is applicable to Derek Hill’s situation:
“One thing I learned through my own career is that guys find their potential at different times,” he said. “Not everyone does it at twenty-two or twenty-three. Problem is, a lot of times, you get to be twenty-four or twenty-five and teams give up on you. I was lucky because I had been the No. 1 pick once upon a time; people were willing to give me more than one chance.”
Once an 18-year old kid who was the club’s future lead-off hitter and center fielder, Derek Hill enters 2019 as a 23-year old man, clinging to his speed and defensive prowess with the hopes those assets can somehow propel him through the upper levels of the minors and into the major leagues. He did finish the 2018 season with a pretty solid August, hitting .275 with a .363 on-base percentage that month.
A move out of the pitcher-friendly Florida State League might be just what the doctor ordered for Hill this season. While playing in spacious parks in both West Michigan and Lakeland throughout nearly his entire career thus far certainly has helped the defense play up, the bat may benefit from a change of scenery.
To date, Hill’s career looks eerily similar to that of former Toronto Blue Jays second round pick — and 2018 Tigers farmhand — Kenny Wilson. Wilson didn’t touch Double-A until his sixth professional season, similarly hampered by injuries and low offensive output. His speed and defensive aptitude kept him around in the upper levels of the minors as organizational fodder until age 28. Hill may very well be headed down that same path. But at age 23, there is still a shred of hope left that his injury-plagued days are behind him and a couple full seasons of real development can put him in line for a roster spot with the Tigers by 2021.